Dhanam, like millions of rural women across India, is a housewife first and bread-earner second. And just like those other women, making some extra money after finishing the housework would greatly improve her family’s lifestyle.
For this 38-year-old living in the outskirts of Coimbatore, the low-cost sanitary napkin maker designed by A Muruganantham is a boon. Working for a comfortable 6-7 hours daily, Dhanam makes close to 400 pads, supplementing her family income by Rs 3,000 per month, which is going towards her daughter’s college fees.
This is precisely the kind of change Muruganantham wanted to bring about with his innovation — a rural women-led improvement of livelihoods. Why? “My mother struggled to provide for us after my father died. I had to drop out of school in Class 9 to help support the family,” he said.
It was sometime in 1998 that he noticed his wife, Shanthi, carrying a dirty cloth. She had been using this to manage her period. “If I use sanitary napkins from the market, we would have to cut the budget elsewhere,” she told him. With his curiosity aroused, Muruganantham decided to find out what made these pads so costly. With such little cotton padding, he felt the pads should have cost barely 15 paise, not the R4/piece market rate. He embarked on his mission to make a low-cost sanitary pad for his wife.
That journey has been long and arduous. From struggling to find the right kind of cotton used in the pads, to making a machine which keeps costs low and provides maximum comfort, he has even had to ward off suspicion from his own family and society. His wife and mother, thinking he was using this as an excuse to get closer to other women, left. Yet, he continued his research without them. “I was obsessed,” he said.
At one point, he even used himself as a guinea pig — strapping on a device made of a football bladder, filling it with goat’s blood to mimic menstrual bleeding, all to test a pad he was wearing!
After four-and-a-half years of research, the umpteenth iteration of his pad finally worked. “When I asked the volunteer using my pad for feedback, she said that it had worked so well that she had forgotten that it was not the market one!” he said, smiling.
Recognition for his efforts has poured in ever since. He won an award in 2006 from IIT Madras for ‘innovating for the betterment of society’. He even received a National Innovation Foundation award from President Pratibha Patil in 2009. His family was finally reunited.
M Rajeshwari, a retired school teacher, is one of the 600 plus users across 23 states of his machine. She has set up a unit in her home in a sleepy neighbourhood in Coimbatore. “I wanted to give back to society. It’s also eco-friendly, since we are not using any chemicals or plastic,” she said.
A ‘Whisper’ Campaign
Creating sanitary pads for use in rural areas faces the problem of the three A’s — Affordability, Availability and Awareness. Now that Muruganantham has surmounted the first two, he has trained his guns on the latter.
“My real innovation is not the machine, but the woman-to-woman model which has a service embedded in it. For the first time, women are talking about hygiene. No advertisement for any of the branded napkins talks about hygiene, only comfort. Rural women make it, sell it and through this are spreading awareness,” he said.
Despite his success, he has not gone commercial using the venture capitalist/dealer-distributor model. He wants to give his innovation to the rural poor. “By retaining the intellectual property rights, my target audience remains the workforce, not the maaliks,” he said.
Not only does Muruganantham want to make India a 100% napkin-using country, he feels we can create a million jobs trying to achieve that milestone. “My proudest moment in this initiative was not getting the President’s award. It was in this village in Uttarakhand where I had installed a machine. When I went back after 8 months, for the first time in that community, the daughters of the ladies making the napkins had started going to school.” Now that’s real change.